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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 1
Eastertide 2010

Cries that Pierced the Iron Curtain
The Catholic Church in Lithuania

by Sheila Liaugminas

The one thing oppressors cannot control is the human spirit. The Church has survived in times and places of persecution on the backs of those individuals, collectively and individually, who refused to give up either faith or hope. We’ll never know the names or numbers of heroic Christians who saved even the smallest remnant of the faith in countries around the world, but a few easily come to mind. Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Titus Brandsma, both martyred in Nazi concentration camps; Cardinal Ignatius Kung, Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, and Father Jerzy Popieluszko, who heroically upheld the Catholic faith against Communism.

Father Popieluszko was martyred in 1984 in Communist-occupied Poland for speaking out boldly and upholding human dignity and “internal freedom even in conditions of enslavement”, as he once said in a homily. Similar conditions existed nearby in Lithuania with similar heroic resistance to Communist oppression of the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Sigitas Tamkevicius, a Lithuanian Jesuit, had been arrested one year earlier, in 1983, convicted of publishing an underground news journal detailing accounts of Communist persecution of the Church in Lithuania, and sentenced to years of exile and hard labor in Siberia.

As providence would have it, on the 25th anniversary of Father Popieluszko’s martyrdom for the faith, Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius, of Kaunas, Lithuania, was visiting the US to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Lithuania and the faith for which he risked his life. He is one of the chief shepherds of Lithuania, and is chancellor of Vytautas Magnus University in Kauns.

During Archbishop Tamkevicius’s Chicago visit to the largest Lithuanian community outside that small Baltic nation, I was given a rare and privileged opportunity to discuss with him the plight of the persecuted Church, and his role in keeping it alive.

Information Is Power

The Catholic faith was closely related to Lithuanian nationality from its beginning, explained Archbishop Tamkevicius. “In times of hardship, the Church was always there to help. Over 120 years of the czarist regime, Lithuania was saved by the Catholic Church”, he said. Though books in Lithuanian were not allowed to be printed within the country, they were printed outside and smuggled in.

The Catholic resistance against religious persecution required drastic action, wrote Father Pranas Dauknys in a 1985 article for the Lithuanian quarterly Lituanus. “When Soviet Russia occupied Lithuania, all publishing and printing houses were nationalized, millions of religious and history books were removed from libraries and sent to paper factories for repulping…. It [was] a fear of truth, the desire to keep the new generation ignorant, the wish to freely utter any lie which slanders the Lithuanian past.” (“The Resistance of the Catholic Church in Lithuania Against Religious Persecution”, Lituanus, Volume 31, No 1, Spring 1985).

The Soviets used propaganda to destroy religious belief — a more insidious extermination agenda than directly quashing public worship and forbidding any vestige of faith or religion to be seen. In his 1980 book The Catholic Church, Dissent and Nationality in Soviet Lithuania, V. Stanley Vardys explains:

Thus, in atheistic activities, as in other fields of endeavor, the scientific-materialistic philosophy is not promoted by merely praising its superior advantages, but proceeds with the tearing down and the attacking of the opposing views…. [T]he list of subjects so aggressively handled begins with the existence of God and the creation of the world. It encompasses natural sciences … then it includes history, liturgy, religious practices, the Church’s social doctrine … and the Church’s and religion’s ability to modernize, that is, to adapt itself to industrialized modern society, especially under Soviet rule.

To further fool the people, the Soviets even set up the Council for Religious Affairs, though Archbishop Tamkevicius says their mission was “to destroy religious belief”. Before Soviet rule, he estimates that about 90 percent of Lithuanians were Catholic. In a systematic takeover of Church properties and affairs, the Communists closed churches and seminaries and schools. “One seminarian was left, one bishop was shot and others were jailed”, the archbishop recalls. “One bishop was allowed under Soviet watchfulness”.

The regime left just enough for a weak presence for a broken people. Or so it appeared.

As human rights violations continued, so did the resistance. Priests banned from carrying out their duties were imprisoned if they were caught doing so. “There was a lack of necessary articles for believers: catechisms, prayer books, even rosary beads”, Archbishop Tamkevicius explains. “Under such circumstances one had to decide whom to obey: God or a man?”

Remaining clergy and lay faithful, he recalls, asked themselves the urgent question, “What to do?”

As Father Dauknys recounts, “In December 1971, a group of Catholics took the initiative for the most organized and massive Memorandum yet written by Lithuanians signed by 17,054 Catholics, and sent to the United Nations General Secretary about religious persecution in Lithuania. The Soviet regime was outraged…” Father Tamkevicius was one of the organizers of the petition protest.

In 1972, while Father Tamkevicius was serving as a parish vicar, he initiated the underground journal The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania (Kronika) — a “samizdat” publication that made public to the West the religious persecution in Soviet Lithuania.

Time Bomb on the Desk

Father Tamkevicius was removed from priestly work by Soviet authorities for his efforts in organizing the Memorandum to the UN, and he was sent to work in a metal factory for a year. This only strengthened his resolve and resourcefulness, however. He held clandestine retreats and conferences for religious, intellectuals and youth, made new friends and acquaintances and gained valuable experience on how to work underground.

When he was allowed to return to parish ministry, Father Tamkevicius and fellow priests decided they needed to get information out, to form “a publication which would awaken national and especially religious consciousness and would reflect the problems of Catholic life”, as he recalls. Kronika was a collaborative effort of faithful priests, lay faithful taking the risk of submitting their personal accounts, and nuns who rewrote and compiled the information to get it out.

“The typewriter on my desk was like a time bomb, it could be confiscated and examined at any moment”, Father Tamkevicius said. He took extraordinary care to hide the Kronika articles and any other evidence from Soviet authorities. He even altered his typewriter to avoid detection. He described how he acquired several sets of letters for his typewriter for the Lithuanian alphabet — “the dangerous alphabet” — which he altered with a soldering iron or pliers to conceal their connection to confiscated documents.

After typing up the Kronika issue he replaced the letters with the Russian alphabet to avoid detection, he explains. “Later, during various interrogations, I learned that these operations had perfectly misled experts seeking to determine the ‘guilty’ typewriter”, he recalls in an account he posted online, which he showed me to illustrate the detailed photos and documents he had obtained from former Communist archives to illustrate the story. (The article in Lithuanian is at www.lkbkronika.lt).

For each issue of Kronika, a whole staff of underground faithful Catholics in different roles worked surreptitiously to get the publication together, chronicling the latest accounts of Church persecution by Communists. Father Tamkevicius hid the text revisions under his shirt and shuttled them back and forth between linguists and transcribers. Sister Elena Suliauskaite shouldered “the major portion of the work” of preparing the text for Kronika for years, in spite of the danger.

“Everyone with whom I discussed the matter agreed that the Kronika would only fulfill its role when the information it contained was distributed not only in Lithuania but also to the free world”, he commented. And this required carriers.

In the beginning, they sewed information into the hem of a woman’s dress, who then traveled to the West and transmitted it. Father Tamkevicius worked with a sympathizer in Moscow who sent issues of Kronika to the West — but this required risky and dangerous trips to Moscow by a circuitous route on a train ride through Byelorussia to Minsk to Moscow.

“All of us, people of very different nationalities, religions, and social groups, were united by the joint task to inform the world how human rights were being violated in the Soviet Union”, recalls Archbishop Tamkevicius in his online account. “We were convinced that this information was the most important weapon fighting against the slavery being implemented by the totalitarian system”.

Getting Kronika to the West required very creative measures on the part of the priest. Harkening back to the days when he served in the Soviet army taking photographs, he decided to make microfilms of completed Kronika issues — hiding the microfilms inside a souvenir given to a tourist from the West when he could, or transporting the microfilm to Moscow himself.

Church and Homeland

The Kronika has an amazing history. The KGB found the very first issue, published in 1972, in the home of Sister Jadvyga Stanelyte, and opened a criminal case against anyone suspected of involvement with the publication. Within a year, they arrested many suspects and “rejoiced in triumph that the Kronika was destroyed”, Archbishop Tamkevicius said.

But that was far from true. A month later, another Kronika was issued, publicizing news of the searches and arrests — which led to more searches and persecutions of the staff, including the press officer. “For God, for the Homeland he was willing to go not only to a labor camp but also into a fire”, recounts the archbishop. Priests and nuns and lay people — “all idealists” — were “very concerned with serving the Church and their Homeland any way they could”, he said.

In some of the earliest trials, underground publishers received harsh penalties, “an especially heavy cross”, as the archbishop puts it, for their “fight for the future of the Church and the Nation. Perhaps the communist party and KGB officers tried by this show trial to intimidate those who dared to speak the truth, but the effect was opposite — repressions fostered the determination to fight”.

Father Tamkevicius struggled with this. With all these arrests, he frequently got “the idea that it would have been better if they had arrested me”, he admitted. “Under calm contemplation, it seems, one can understand that in any fight victims are inevitable, but to lead one good person after the other to agony” is extremely difficult to accept.

But Kronika had its effect. “The Soviet authorities were particularly annoyed by documents no. 18 on the Violation of Rights of Children in Lithuania and no. 5 on the Regulations for Religious Societies, which 520 priests and the two exiled bishops supported”, recounts Archbishop Tamkevicius in his online journal of events. “While they could have endured the pain of the contents of the documents, the KGB could not tolerate that these documents reached the West”. (Emphasis added)

Archbishop Tamkevicius made a point, repeatedly, of crediting every priest, nun and lay person he could name who helped disseminate information for the sake of religious freedom. “During the whole life of the Kronika one could only trust in God”, he wrote in his online account. We can only imagine such repression in the West.

“Everyone who collected information, articles, assisted in editing, distributing, and sending issues to the West lacked everything: experience, knowledge, and organizational ability…. Often I had to rely on my Guardian Angel, often I repeated the prayer: ‘Lord, you know that I am working for You. If this work is necessary, care for me, if not — let it end’. And God cared for me in a wonderful way. It seems to me that everything on which the Kronika reported and [that] was distributed all over the world is only one side, and the other side was no less important — all of us became a little braver, became more conscious, began to understand that the legs of the godless idol are made of clay, and what is the most important — we comprehended that we should not sit with our hands folded, but work and fight, for then God would help us”.

That help came through many nuns, and the archbishop recalls them by name and deed. He was about to need each one of them. When he was arrested by the KGB and sentenced, he thought “the clock had stopped”. But it hadn’t.

Seeds of the Future

In 1984, the same year as the martyrdom of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, Father Tamkevicius was interrogated by a KGB officer about his work on the Kronika. The priest had a question for the KGB officer: “Has the publication of the Kronika stopped?”

“It is still going”, the officer replied (This response “resounded like music in my ears, for a long time”, the archbishop said.)

When the Soviets arrested and exiled Father Tamkevicius, they thought they had shut down Kronika and with it the network that smuggled it to the West. The fact that they hadn’t accomplished this infuriated them. “The authorities were constantly looking for the source” of information, the archbishop told me. “In all the Baltic countries, they always found these sources of publications within two years. Kronika published for 16 years.”

From 1972 until the last issue was published in 1988, members of the persecuted Church in Lithuania had made their voices heard in the US and in Europe. It only ended when Communism itself was coming to an end, and the faithful shifted attention from saving the Church to rebuilding it from the remnants that remained.

One of the most famous sites in Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses, was indestructible throughout Soviet rule, standing as a testament to the indomitable faith of the people and their national pride. At least three times the Soviets tried to bulldoze the site and destroy it, but all three times it returned immediately and grew even larger, with tens of thousands of crucifixes and rosaries adorning the hill, which would later be visited and honored by Pope John Paul II.

In 1988 the Soviet concentration camp authorities told Father Tamkevicius “You’ve done your duty, you can go home”. After five years in a remote camp in Siberia, with almost no contact with the outside world, taunted by authorities who showed him a list of people who had sent him mail that he would never receive, and after hard labor in a camp surrounded by six fences, how did he emerge?

“What sustained you?” I asked. “How did you endure such harsh imprisonment?”

“My faith”, he said, as if it were a given. The materialism and consumerism of today poses almost more of a threat to the soul than persecution, he said matter-of-factly. “It’s not easy now for young people to find their path”.

Like other Church leaders who knew persecution and repression first hand, including both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Archbishop Tamkevicius understands the impact of fear and complacency on members of the Church.

In a homily given more than twenty-five years ago, Father Jerzy Popieluszko said: “In my sermons I talk about what people are thinking and what they are talking about … because often they have not either the courage or the opportunity of being able to express themselves out loud.”

Almost exactly on the anniversary of the Polish martyr’s death, Archbishop Tamkevicius celebrated Mass in Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral to mark the millennium of Lithuania’s evangelization. In his homily after the Gospel on the blind man Bartimaeus, the archbishop gave a homily on the blindness of paganism and the “love that was stronger than death” in Saint Bruno of Querfurt, who brought the Christian Gospel to Lithuania one thousand years earlier.

“The healing of Lithuania’s ‘blindness’ came late, but was a special blessing, as it brought forth the seeds of Western enlightenment with the establishment of schools and universities, and fostered a deep Christian spirituality in its people”, he told a packed cathedral, with Cardinal Francis George concelebrating and ecumenical groups in attendance.

It is exemplified by Adele Dirsyte, a deeply religious girl who died in a concentration camp for her beliefs. She was a heroic example of how we should all value the light of the Gospels. She secretly wrote a prayer book for Lithuanian girls in Siberia, which she shared with other prisoners and helped to strengthen their faith. It has also renewed the faith of those in the free world, when her words were printed for all to read. (More information on the “Siberian Prayer Book” at javlb.org/bridges/2003/may2003/may2003_19-20.pdf).

The Lithuanian archbishop is keen in his understanding of modern ideological threats to people of faith, much like Pope Benedict. Archbishop Tamkevicius used the occasion of his homily in Chicago to warn modern Catholics that freedom must not be taken for granted.

During the celebrations of Lithuania’s millennium we are also encouraged to study the signs of today, and to choose between the light of faith in Christ or the darkness of paganism. The new paganism in Lithuania and elsewhere in our world fosters egoism in mankind and is based on a culture of death based on money, pleasure and power. The light of the Gospel encourages us to throw off these secular and materialistic chains, these false idols, even though they are very attractive. Let us choose the values of the Gospels as our path in life — based on faith, hope and love.

This choice is not always straightforward, nor is it easy. However, we can remain strong by gathering together in our parish communities, by being open to everyone, to those with whom we live, by being willing to share each other’s sorrows and pain. Let us open our hearts to the healing grace of Jesus Christ, as did the blind Bartimaeus, so that we, too, may hear, in the depths of our soul, the words of our Lord, “Your faith has healed you”.


Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the editorial board of Voices, is a Chicago journalist who covered the apostolic visit of Pope Benedict for Relevant Radio. She writes on news of faith and culture on her Mercatornet blog: www.SheilaReports.com.


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